Reporter 433, 15 March 1999

Generally Misunderstood or Genuine Miracle? Meeting of minds chews over the GM issues

So which corner are you in? In the boxing ring of the genetically modified food debate the heavyweight biotechnology industry is slugging it out with green campaigners, watched by a public trained for the fight by years of food scares. Independent science could help deliver the knockout blow for either, but is forced to fight well below its weight by mistrust and hype. At the same time as ASDA was banning GM ingredients, a dozen University scientists entered the arena and called for stronger refereeing.

"If people disagree with what is written in this article would it be sensible for them to call for a ban on computers? After all it is computer technology that allows the words to be written, distributed and viewed. And if we went ahead and did ban computers in this country, how would our economy react? Banning certain foods purely because of the way they are manufactured is exactly the same."

Those thinking that scientists are united in their views on the different applications of genetically modified (GM) technology would have been interested spectators at a meeting held in the biology department last week, where a dozen leading University researchers discussed the issues surrounding the debate.

Plant geneticist Peter Meyer - recently dubbed 'a voice of reason' by the Yorkshire Evening Post - chaired the debate. "The computer analogy may seem far-fetched but it is vital to stress that judging a technology in general without addressing how it is used is nonsensical."

The debate largely centred around three themes: food, the environment and the business and commercial aspects. "It was a very interesting debate," said Professor Meyer. "We agreed that it is important not to get stuck in a yes/no argument as the technology can be applied in so many different ways and each must be judged on its own individual merits."

The forum agreed that GM food is more stringently assessed for safety than foods produced in other ways, and that an independent, transparent testing agency would help to prove that. "GM food is already subject to far more rigorous testing than food grown traditionally, organically or food that is imported," said microbiologist John Heritage, a member of the Government's Advisory Committee for Novel Foods and Processes. "The independent food agency, soon to be set up by the Government, will hopefully help to restore public confidence in food-related issues, so badly damaged by the BSE debacle," he said.

Consumer choice also figured strongly in the debate. "Consumers were given little option when GM soya was first introduced but ASDA banning it also denies that choice. As a consumer, I want to choose foods based on GM ingredients, for example, in cases where they contain less pesticides," said Professor Meyer.

The Reporter was able to introduce the questions of University staff to the debate, the majority of which concerned possible environmental impact. Many of the researchers also expressed concern about the possible effects of treating resistant plants with the new generation of herbicides associated with GM plants. Paradoxically, the very effectiveness of these herbicides when used with GM crops presents one of the greatest ecological dangers. Ecologist William Kunin noted that a number of rare and endangered plant species are dependent on agricultural land, and could thus be put in jeopardy by more effective weed control. The forum suggested the possible environmental damage should be weighed up against the benefits and consideration must be given to the differences between the agricultural environments in the UK and the USA. GM crops were grown on an area bigger than the whole of England in America last year.

Plant scientist Howard Atkinson pointed out that some non-GM crops currently receive pesticides that already damage the environment and expose agricultural workers to health risks. He said that a possible benefit of GM crops would be to reduce the need for these harmful chemicals, with great advantages for the environment.

The forum strongly believed the potential advantages of GM foods to the developing world makes it vital that research continues. For example, creating potatoes resistant to pests using a totally safe rice gene eaten daily by millions of people. The industry theme of the debate raised some of the strongest concerns.

"Some of the larger biotechnology companies manufacture both chemicals and seeds so there is little incentive for them to apply the aspects of the technology leading to reduced use of chemicals," said Professor Meyer.

A handful of companies now control a large proportion of the global seed and food market and many of the researchers feared a total monopoly will develop.

The New York Times recently reported US agrochemicals giant Mosanto and DuPont, the world's largest chemical group had opened preliminary merger discussions. If the move went ahead it would create a company that controlled about 20 per cent of the world market in products such as herbicides and pesticides.

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